Study shows pandemic hit refugees harder in jobs and mental health

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In a 2020 study conducted by the Partnerships for the Advancement of New Americans, it showed that refugees faced exacerbated inequities during the pandemic in job loss and mental health. Interviewing 544 refugees and first-generation community members, PANA discovered that refugees faced worsened conditions in wage loss at 84%, and worsened mental health reported at 49%. The study also showed refugees living in San Diego six or more years had 150% times higher total of adverse community affects of COVID-19 compared to immigrants living in San Diego five years or less. Every two years, PANA conducts a survey of refugees in San Diego County to better understand the experiences, challenges, and needs of its communities.

Senior author Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller, assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego and a faculty member at the Center on Gender Equity and Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine said as the region moves forward into the next chapter of the pandemic, that it is important to remember that there is inequity in those affected by COVID-19 and an equitable response is needed locally and across the nation.

Jeanine Erikat, PANA policy associate and survey lead, said PANA fights to advance full economic, social, and civic inclusions of refugees in the San Diego region and across the region centering around the fight for affordable housing, equity and inclusion.

“Our 2020 report is particularly timely as it reveals how refugees are faring through the global pandemic, the economic downturn, and the rise in white supremacy, Islamophobia, and hate crimes,” she said.

Erikat said she met weekly with Fielding-Miller and organizers who conducted inperson and over the phone interviews in English, Arabic, Somali, Oromo, Dari, Pashto, Karem, and Burmese, then supported writing the Refugee Experiences Report with researchers.

“Beyond numbers, when we interviewed refugees during in depth community conversations, we found most refugees in San Diego are low-income and those employed are generally in public facing, service industry jobs and were the first to be let go in the pandemic,” said Erikat. “Service industry jobs continue to be the jobs with the highest risk of exposure, so while some of us were able to transition to remote work that was never an option for many refugees in San Diego who continue to only be eligible for severely low income jobs. As you can imagine the stress of being unemployed can lead to worsened mental health as people are scrambling to figure out how they’re going to pay rent, feed their families, and ensure their basic needs are met.”

Erikat said investing in refugees is part of a solution and important for future generations, providing them access to mental health services, education, and employment.

“Refugees coming to San Diego are arriving in the midst of a housing crisis, working in increasingly low-income jobs, and struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “Investment in up-skilling refugees in family sustaining jobs and prioritizing rapid access to affordable housing upon initial resettlement is necessary to ensure the health and safety of refugees. When refugees thrive, the whole nation thrives.”

Fielding-Miller said with San Diego County having one of the largest refugee communities in the country, and said she was approached for support in the study because they realized refugee communities were severely impacted by the pandemic.

“We asked some questions that the UCSD Center on Gender Equity & Health that has also been asking people all over the state,” she said. “PANA managed to reach about 517 people throughout San Diego County from Syria, Afghanistan, East Africa, Myanmar, so it was a large sample and diversity of our refugee community here.”

Fielding-Miller said obviously everyone has been affected by the pandemic, but refugees and asylum seekers had much more job loss, wage loss, and worst mental health issues across the board. She said part of the problem is funding.

“We looked at people who have been here less than five years and more than five years,” she said. “The way funding works to support refugees, you spend time in a camp, you come here with nothing, you learn the language, it takes a minute to reestablish yourself. There is quite a lot of funding for the first few months, then infrastructure and services taper off until about five years.”

Fielding-Miller said after five years there are few resources or specific funding available.

“We looked at people here for more than five years and those were the folks reporting the worst outcomes,” she said. “People who did not have access to any support structures, any federal funding. What PANA highlights is making sure people have ongoing resources. Whether it is job training, language training, case work support, finding employment, housing support. Housing is a big issue in San Diego, and it is a huge issue in the refugee communities. Making sure that those resources are available after that five-year cutoff would make a huge difference.”

Fielding-Miller said she found it interesting in the report how many were showing signs with problems in their mental health.

“That is a hard thing to research,” she said. “We noticed people that had been in the country longer were much more likely to report they were seeing higher levels of mental health issues. Some of that, I think is related to that five-year cutoff of resources, but I think some of that speaks to the issue of culturation. You come. You are sort of initially in shock. Coming from a refugee camp to San Diego, you are going to feel better than you did six weeks ago. But as people begin to acclimate, get used to what it is in living in the U.S., you see mental health worsening again. It speaks to the need of culturally tailored mental health services that are appropriate for the huge diversity of people we have in San Diego. Especially as we see more folks from Ukraine, Syria, and from all over the world.”

Fielding-Miller said she feels lucky living in San Diego with such a vibrant refugee and asylum-seeking community, and to help those communities she said people should talk to their congressional leaders, reminding them of the huge influx that the San Diego region is seeing now.

“Remind legislators that we want to make sure that resources are available, and people are supported as they come here and become members of our community,” she said. “There are many amazing organizations here in San Diego County, like PANA, which are absolutely worth donating your time, money, and anything else that people want to donate. There is no real wrong way to advocate.”

Study shows pandemic hit refugees harder in jobs and mental health